What does Wikileaks say about Russian-Georgian war?

Source: Reuters/Vostock Photo

Source: Reuters/Vostock Photo

August 2008 saw the biggest crisis between the West (the United States, NATO and the European Union) and Russia since the end of the Cold War; its ramifications are still felt to this day. After all, just think of how the recent atmosphere must have been during discussions at the recent Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Astana (Kazakhstan). Even more importantly, the war of August 2008 led to the emergence of a new status quo in the Greater Caucasus and Eurasia as a whole, because this was the first time since the fall of the USSR that not only former Soviet republics had their independence recognised. Moscow acted as the second global centre for recognising new countries, after the United States, which opened the Pandora’s Box by recognising Kosovo as an independent country.

In this respect, the five August days of 2008 still remain in the spotlight, and the debate continues on who pulled the trigger on 8 August. How far does the publication of leaked diplomatic documents on WikiLeaks, a site that does not comment on its postings, help or impede answering questions over the war? Let us start by looking over the information that WikiLeaks has provided us with. We have evidence (diplomatic reports) by John Tefft, the former US ambassador to Georgia, who says Tbilisi did not want to start the military campaign in South Ossetia.

Apart from Ambassador Tefft’s claims, WikiLeaks also posted materials on how these harrowing five days of combat are interpreted. The most interesting among them are documents on a meeting between Tefft and Franciszek Gągor, Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, as well as materials on NATO’s reaction to the August war. The meeting between Tefft and Gągor is very important as, along with the United States, Poland was a main lobbying force behind Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO. Surely, both the Polish government and army had reliable information on what was happening in the run up and during the five-day war.

As expected, Russia and Georgia saw the WikiLeaks postings in very contrasting ways. If Moscow chose to treat these publications as being of little significance, Tbilisi took them very seriously, with its politicians, experts and journalists portraying the new materials as an important diplomatic victory. Tengiz Ablotia, a Georgian publicist, wrote: “Help came from an unexpected source, disbunking the myth of a sleeping Tskhinvali” bombarded by Georgian troops. But are John Tefft’s opinions so unequivocal? Do his reports indeed reveal the truth behind the war in South Ossetia?

To begin with, there are certain things in Tefft’s reports that Georgian politicians and experts have overlooked (so too have their staunch supporters, including American expert David Smith); these things deserve attention. In his first letter from Tbilisi, dated 6 August 2008, Tefft writes: “From evidence available to us, it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation.” In other words, the document speaks of certain South Ossetian activity, but not about a Russian invasion as a pretext for Georgia to attack Tskhinvali – something that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his entourage so much insisted upon, trying to justify their actions to the West.

I would like to add some fundamentally important considerations here that are often omitted when analysing the August war. In fact, these “five days that shook the world” did not come out of the blue. The Georgian-Ossetian conflict had its boiling point in August 2008, and political experts should know it just as well as a cobbler knows shoes. When Georgia and South Ossetia signed the Sochi agreements in 1992, Georgia agreed to cede some of its sovereignty over South Ossetia. This is not wishful thinking, rather documented fact. The Joint Control Commission for Georgian-Ossetian Conflict Resolution, comprising Georgia, Russian, South and North Ossetia, was established as the main body responsible for keeping the peace in the region, along with joint peacekeeping forces. Many seem to have forgotten that the Georgian military was among the peacekeepers. Once those agreements were signed, the situation in the region, albeit at a snail’s pace, was shifting from war to peace. Unlike in Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh, the foundations for peace in South Ossetia have been secured. Traffic has been running between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, with cars’ license plates being admitted by both the Georgian and South Ossetian authorities. There were quite a number of joint markets (tellingly, a market in the Georgian city of Gori was called “Osetinka” because South Ossetian immigrants traded there). There was also a special committee for refugees that was able to take on their problems effectively. Ethnic Georgians worked in the South Ossetian administration, while international organisations ran donor programmes, though on a pretty insignificant scale. All of this was thrown aside by President Saakashvili, who, despite his background in law, resorted to grossly and willingly, which heightens his responsibility, violate the Sochi agreement in May 2004 (herein lies the stepping stone to August 2008) by bringing Georgian troops into the disputed territory and thus violating the obligations Georgia undertook in the agreement. This was followed by provocative statements from the Georgian parliament, the county closing its markets on the pretext of fighting contraband, though the Ergneti market tied South Ossetia to Georgia much stronger than “ministers for reintegration” did. Finally, violence resumed in the conflict zone in the summer of 2004, which dragged on, aggravating and easing at times, until it came to the five-day war. Thus, the August war was not the result of just one attack or provocation, but of the deliberate policy of destroying the political and legal principles agreed upon in 1992 for settling the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. The reason behind it was Saakashvili’s unwillingness to come to terms with the loss of some of Georgia’s sovereignty over South Ossetia. To improve the situation, however, he did not find anything better than to pretend that there were no rights in the conflict area, and that it was just another ordinary part of Georgia, such as Borzhomi, Gori or Bakuriani.

Could Ambassador Tefft describe all this in his detailed letter from 6 or 7 August 2008? Of course not, because he relies on his colleagues’ “default knowledge”. He is not a political scientist and not a historian, and he does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship. Experts, however, do have to establish where the cause and the effect are linked. Tefft writes of how the Ossetians committed violent acts. But who denies that? Of course, calling anyone in Tskhinvali an angel would be an overstatement, but to say so of Georgian politicians would be just ludicrous. Indeed, they are the ones who orchestrated the senseless storm of Tliakana in 2004, writing a new page in South Ossetia’s violent history. They are the ones to blame for the shelling of Tskhinvali in September 2005 (when South Ossetia was celebrating the anniversary of its independence). They are the ones who initiated, in violation of the Sochi agreement, the rotation of their peacekeepers more often than provisioned for, thus seeking to increase the number of Georgian troops familiar with the area. And finally, they are the ones who put the Georgian peacekeepers under the Ministry of Defense’s direct command on the eve on the August events. And that’s not to mention a Georgian-built military hospital with state-of-the-art equipment in Gori several years prior to the war. The Georgians also repaired roads leading from Tbilisi to Gori and opened a morgue three times greater in capacity than a small town like Gori needs. Can all of this be seen as signs of peace? Hardly. Therefore, what we see in Tefft’s letter is a confirmation of violence in the region, and that violence is on the rise. The question now is who began to “unravel” the conflict? During military clashes in 2004, Moscow chose not to send Russian troops into South Ossetia, while it was at that time that the 12-year period of peace – and not just peace but also of political and legal rules regulating life in the conflict area – was desolated by Saakashvili’s unfettered energy.

There are some more interesting excerpts in Ambassador Tefft’s report, which picture the August political landscape in anything but black and white: “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.” He continues by writing: “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention. Key Georgian officials who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway.” Does that mean that there were special officials in the Georgian government responsible for the attack on South Ossetia? If so, Tefft admits in his comments that Tbilisi did have plans to resort to violence. “Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin,” he writes. Therefore, there was an attack, and it was provoked by the South Ossetians (who, I stress it again, were not just attacking, whereas they were responding to actions by Georgian troops), and not “Russian imperialism”, as Saakashvili tried to prove.

Also, Tefft’s reports often cite Saakashvili’s position and his version of events (we can see it from phrases like “as Saakashvili said”, “in the Georgian president’s opinion” and so on). Thus, the independent informational value of these materials is to a certain extent called into question. This is on-the-spot reporting rather than a thoughtful analysis. Such are the rules of the genre. What else can we say here? Perhaps, the embassy of a great power should be something more than a mere translator of the opinions of the head of state where it performs its mission. Professionals know that any source of information (even one that seems to be reliable) has to be checked and double-checked. John Tefft does sound skeptic at times: “It is increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.” This assessment was made after Russia interfered in the conflict.

Gągor, at his meeting with Tefft, told the US ambassador that Saakashvili, who, as he saw it, was manipulated by his advisors, originally drove the initiative to use force. Interestingly enough, the Polish general does not deny Saakashvili’s responsibility for what happened in Tskhinvali. He criticises him for “giving in to provocations from Russia”, destroying his army and ruining any hope for NATO membership. The plots of “the Russians”, “agents of influence” and “bad advisers” sound like phrases from the Stalin era, when one’s own mistakes and crimes were blamed on “enemies” and “external factors.”

Last but not least, let us look at the publication of materials on NATO’s reaction to the events. Diplomatic correspondence between NATO member-states shows that there was no unity within the organisation. Moreover, many chose to restrain from furthering their contacts with Georgia within NATO partnership. For example, a letter dated 8 August 2008 shows that Germany insisted on cancelling a planned visit by the NATO Commission to Georgia, and another letter registers’ Paris’ “concern that NATO is becoming too active a player in the conflict in South Ossetia”. American diplomats spoke of three camps within the Alliance that were divided in their stance towards Georgia and Russia. While the United States and New Europe (European post-Communist era countries) used tough rhetoric against Moscow, Germany, Spain, France and Portugal warned against crossing the red line and severing ties with Russia.

Hence, the WikiLeaks publications will hardly give much information to those fond of political scandals. The many letters and reports only point to certain details and nuances that help us to better understand relations between the United States and Georgia, assessing Tbilisi’s dependence on Washington and vice-versa, not to mention internal disagreements within NATO, and western countries’ avenues for dealing with Russia. Those wanting to understand the history and evolution of the conflicts in the Caucasus should supplement these latest publications with a serious analysis of the situation before August 2008 and what finally led to the armed conflict. As for politicians keen on information wars, they don’t need any leaks to find a pretext for further action.

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